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Resonant Ripples in a Global Pond: The Blinding of Isaac Woodard
In 1946, an African-American World War II veteran named Isaac Woodard was blinded in the small town of Batesburg, South Carolina. The recently discharged sergeant had talked back to a white bus driver. This infraction of southern racial etiquette earned Woodard a beating from the police. When he resisted the mistreatment, he was struck across the forehead with a blackjack and jailed. The twenty-seven-year old suffered two ruptured eyeballs and permanent loss of sight. A local lawman was tried on federal charges, but was acquitted by an all-white jury. This episode was but one example of the numerous injustices done to returning black veterans.
The Woodard case differed from most, however, in that it grew from a personal tragedy and local incident to an event that spread beyond the state, across the nation, and around the world. It undermined American efforts against the Soviet Union in the Cold War. It started President Truman on a path leading to his order to integrate the armed forces, influenced the 1948 presidential election, and helped dramatically to reshape the political landscape of South Carolina. It even played an important, but little-known part in the Brown decision. This paper will trace those connections and attempt to explain why the blinding of Isaac Woodard resonated so widely.
The end of the Second World War marked a period of wrenching social, economic, and political readjustment for the United States. Although the war had spared the country’s industrial base and reinvigorated the economy in a way the New Deal had not, it had forced Americans to set aside most of the nagging questions the Great Depression had raised over the evolving trajectory of industrial capitalism. What guarantees should a worker enjoy in a system where the majority of people no longer survived by farming? Could business managers reconcile profit maximization and human compassion? What role should the government play?
The next few years offered no good answers. Factory floors underwent tremendous upheavals as the armed forces demobilized. Those veterans who did not attend school under the GI Bill took manufacturing positions. They displaced female operatives who had left homes to take jobs during the war. Rather than fighting the change, however, most of the women returned to the domestic sphere where they nurtured the "Baby Boom" generation. Back at the factory, workers demanded higher wages. Strikes and union organization attempts took place regularly. Owners meanwhile sought to control costs while seeking an end to government price controls. So, too, did farmers.
The Truman Administration succeeded in making nobody happy. The president offended businessmen in the fall of 1945 when he proposed legislation that would give greater rights and benefits to workers. Truman lost friends in the labor movement by threatening to draft recalcitrant strikers into the military. His refusal to lift price caps on beef outraged farmers to the point that they withheld cattle from the marketplace, causing inflation. Voters found in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s humble replacement an easy target to blame, which placed the Republicans in a strong position to take control of Congress during the 1946 elections.
The international situation featured equal, if not more uncertainty. The Soviet Union shifted rapidly from its role as wartime ally to that of Cold War foe. Mao Zedong’s Communists gained strength that by 1949 would allow them to topple the Nationalist regime in China. Fading western colonial powers found that they could no longer hold their empires. Scores of independent countries emerged out of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia to join the fledgling United Nations. The resulting power vacuum would create new points of friction between East and West in such places as Greece, Yugoslavia, Palestine, and Indochina. The advent of atomic weapons and long-range bombers gave foreign policy issues an urgent relevance to an America previously protected by oceans. Fear of the Soviet Union fuelled a growing anti-communist movement that would culminate with the McCarthy hearings of the fifties.
The postwar era also intensified the struggle for civil rights. Whether stationed at home or abroad, many African-American servicemen gained awareness of a broader range of possibilities for their lives than they had known previously. Moreover, they felt they had earned their citizenship. Manpower shortages in domestic industries similarly gave black civilians greater opportunities, a higher standard of living, and the political power that came with money. Civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People used the momentum to push for even greater freedom.
Issues of economics, politics, labor, and race would combine with special potency in the American South. Military spending during the war spurred industrialization and hastened the mechanization of agriculture. Political power shifted away from the rural county seats to a rising class of business boosters located in the cities. Both the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations embarked upon unionization drives. The NAACP took advantage of the fluctuating situation to enroll large number of new members.
The central arena for the civil rights struggle in South Carolina during the forties was the voting booth. Various groups attempted to increase the number of registered blacks, who numbered only 3,000 statewide in 1940.1 Organizations working toward this goal included the state conference of the NAACP and the Negro Citizens Committee—both headed by James Hinton—and the Progressive Democratic Party led by John McCray, who also edited the Lighthouse & Informer newspaper.
The primary system was the most formidable barrier they faced. Claiming status as a private entity, the South Carolina Democratic Party refused to allow blacks to vote in primary elections. This exclusion effectively disfranchised African Americans because, like the rest of the region, the state Republican Party barely functioned and sometimes did not even bother to field candidates. Some blacks tried to revitalize the Republicans by forming Lincoln Emancipation Clubs. Others, however, decided to fight their way into the Democrats.
Foreshadowing tactics that the better-known Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party would use two decades later, McCray’s Progressive Democrats made an unsuccessful attempt to unseat the South Carolina delegation at the Democratic National Convention of 1944. The year also marked the Supreme Court decision Smith v. Allwright, which struck down the exclusion of blacks from the Texas Democratic primary. South Carolinians paid close attention to this case. The Negro Citizens’ Committee even contributed $500, a princely sum in those days.2
Within a week of the Smith v. Allwright ruling, the South Carolina General Assembly passed over a hundred bills designed to circumvent the decision. The white elites of the state made their sentiments clear in a one-page advertisement purchased in Columbia’s The State newspaper. "Do you want a Negro Democracy or are you for a Democracy of WHITE MEN?" they asked. "This is a White Man’s Country, he cannot escape it. . . . Southern Democratic Party. Strictly American and ALL White."3
Meanwhile during the mid-1940s, state civil rights leaders worked to assist the thousands of veterans who were returning home. A major source of racial friction was located only six miles east of the state capital at Fort Jackson. In 1945, the War Department opened an out-processing station there. Soldiers returning to the post from overseas turned in their equipment and uniforms, underwent physical examinations, checked on their final paperwork and veterans benefits, received their last paychecks, and boarded buses for home and civilian life. The Army remained mostly segregated, but combat and overseas duty emboldened many black soldiers.
African-American veterans awaiting discharge at Fort Jackson started several near-riots during late 1945 and early 1946. The causes are unknown, but Army intelligence agents considered their origins to be racial. In November 1945, black soldiers brawled at the colored area PX, assaulted the black female civilian clerks, and looted the store. In December, two white peanut vendors claimed to have been attacked on three separate occasions by three different pairs of black soldiers. In February 1946, according to a domestic intelligence report, "a riot of small proportions occurred. . . . when a crowd of Negro soldiers returning from a theater created a disturbance by throwing bottles at a service club building. . . ." In March, a riot involving almost four hundred African-American troops took place at the post theater.4
Although none of these incidents made headlines in the local papers, they clearly increased racial tensions. A December 1945 letter from a black Army private at Fort Jackson to President Truman suggests a high level of suspicion. In his letter, the soldier complained that his commander would not allow African Americans to have weapons even while on guard duty. Instead, they carried broomsticks.5
Unrest among African-American troops extended beyond Fort Jackson into Columbia. In December 1945, a group of soldiers threatened to shoot up a civilian bus. In January 1946, three soldiers from Fort Jackson stabbed two white Columbians, injuring both but killing neither. The police caught only one of the assailants, who received six months in the stockade after a court-martial.
In February, another soldier refused to sit in the back of a bus even after the driver ordered him to move. The serviceman was refunded his fare and told to get off the vehicle. As he exited, he uttered a curse to the driver. This act of disrespect prompted several white soldiers to follow. He allegedly drew a knife, and a scuffle ensued. The whites beat him severely, but an investigation by the Fort Jackson Provost Marshal absolved them from any wrongdoing. An intelligence report stated that "his broken jaw and other injuries are attributed to a fall sustained as he attempted to escape apprehension."
In March 1946, a white Columbia woman accused a black soldier from Fort Jackson of throwing her to the ground and attacking her. A bystander heard screams and came to her aid. The city police arrested the soldier but released him after the women admitted some days later that he had done nothing more than speak to her. The serviceman said later that the woman had become unduly frightened after he had asked her the whereabouts of his girlfriend.
Conflicts between black soldiers and civilians were not confined to the area around Fort Jackson and Columbia. They occurred across the two Carolinas. In April 1945, police in Florence arrested an airman from the nearby base for sitting next to a white girl. In May, two soldiers scuffled with a Greenville taxi driver. During the same month, two airmen from Myrtle Beach Army Airfield got into a fight at a filling station.
In August Corporal Marguerite Nicholson was dragged off of a railroad coach and arrested in Hamlet, North Carolina. Returning to Fort Jackson from leave in the North, she had refused to move to the segregated section after the train crossed into the South. The Hamlet Chief of Police beat the 120-pound woman and charged her with violating the state’s Jim Crow ordinance. Corporal Nicholson spent two days in jail and had to pay a $25.00 fine plus $13.25 in court costs.
An even more medieval fate befell two soldiers in December 1945. Police in Darlington, South Carolina, arrested them for being drunk and disorderly on a civilian bus. The judge there gave the pair the choice of paying a $12 fine or spending twenty days on the chain gang. Neither soldier had enough money. After a few days of hard labor, however, one of them did manage to find sufficient funds. He paid his fine and notified Army authorities, who had erroneously considered them to have been AWOL.
Incidents at Walterboro Army Air Field near Charleston received particular attention. Along with Tuskegee, this base was one of the nation’s two training grounds for black pilots. In August 1944, the Associated Negro Press carried a three-part series on the unrest at the base. In March 1945, three airmen attacked a city bus driver with knives. In April, a soldier from Walterboro wrote a bitter letter to the Pittsburgh Courier. He described South Carolina as a "hell-hole" and compared the situation there to the 1943 Detroit riots. He referred to local whites as "Southern barbarians." Two months later in June, 175 blacks from Walterboro staged a march to protest their treatment by civilian police.
Some of the South Carolina encounters were fatal. In August 1945, a white civilian from Elko shot to death a recently-discharged veteran in what Lighthouse & Informer editor John McCray termed a lynching.6 In November, a Johnsonville police officer killed another veteran with a pistol for undetermined reasons.7
Such was the situation in South Carolina when Technical Sergeant Isaac Woodard, Jr., returned to the United States in early 1946. The lanky twenty-seven-year-old had survived fifteen months of duty with the U.S. Army in the Pacific theater. He had not fought on the front lines—few African Americans during World War II were allowed to serve in the combat arms—but as a military longshoreman, he had earned a battle star by unloading ships during the campaign against the Japanese for the remote and dangerous island of New Guinea. He received his discharge at Camp (present-day Fort) Gordon, Georgia, on the afternoon of 12 February.
The young soldier boarded a Greyhound bus that evening headed for Winnsboro, South Carolina. Located to the north of Columbia in Fairfield County, this place had been home to his family for several generations.8 Woodard was born there in 1919. He attended grade school for five years. At age fifteen, he moved to North Carolina, where during the Great Depression he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. He returned to his birthplace in 1940 and found a job working at a local lumberyard. He was married in 1942. That same year he was drafted into the Army. After undergoing induction at Fort Jackson, Woodard left South Carolina for basic training in Georgia and service overseas.9 He would never see his native state in the daylight again.
Exactly what happened on the bus remains unclear. Nighttime had fallen, and the vehicle contained a mixture of civilian travelers and discharged soldiers from Camp Gordon. Some of the latter raised eyebrows by talking together in racially integrated groups. A bottle of whiskey apparently passed hands, but nobody knows exactly who imbibed. The driver, A. C. Blackwell of Columbia, claimed that he had seen Woodard drinking in his rear-view mirror, that he had heard him swearing, and that the disruption had offended a white female passenger. Woodard denied consuming any alcohol, and several witnesses testified to his sobriety. All agreed, however, that the sergeant attracted the driver’s ire after he had asked if there was time for him to empty his bladder during a stop. The driver said Woodard made the request in a vulgar manner by asking if he could "take a piss."10
"Boy, go on back and sit down and keep quiet and don’t be talking out so loud." Blackwell testified in court he had told the soldier.11 Woodard’s reply reveals how military service had reinforced his sense of masculinity, leading him to challenge the prevailing southern custom that allowed whites to address black adult males in diminutive fashion.
"God damn it, talk to me like I’m talking to you. I’m a man just like you," he testified he had said.12
When the bus stopped at Batesburg, a small town about thirty miles to the west of Columbia, the driver asked the soldier to step off and talk with two local lawmen, Chief Linwood Shull and Officer Elliot Long. Woodard testified that one of the policemen struck him when he tried to tell his side. A soldier sitting on the bus supported this sequence of events. Shull said that he had only shaken a blackjack at Woodard because he would not be quiet, was using profanity, and reeked of alcohol. According to the chief, the soldier had created enough of a disturbance outside of the bus to warrant arrest regardless of what had occurred on the bus. He grabbed Woodard by the arm and led him away. Officer Long stayed behind to question a white soldier.
All parties agreed that the most violent encounter took place after the pair rounded a street corner out of sight of the bus. Whether by accident or intent, Shull twisted his prisoner’s arm. The chief said his attention was diverted when he looked back to see if Officer Long was following. Woodard said he had angered Shull by answering "Yes" instead of "Yes, sir" to a question. He also admitted that he "lit into" the chief and tried to take away the blackjack.13 In fact, he claimed to have successfully removed it only to have Officer Long arrive with a gun. Shull made no attempt to hide the fact that he hit Woodard in the face with the weapon. He testified that he had acted in self-defense. Exactly how many blows were struck is unknown, but the force of one or more of them ruptured both eyeballs. After gaining the upper hand, Shull took the soldier to a jail cell for the night.
Woodard had difficultly seeing when he awoke the next morning although the police claimed he could walk without assistance. Rather than taking him immediately for medical treatment, they hauled him before the local magistrate, who charged him with drunk and disorderly conduct. Woodard pled guilty and was given the choice of paying $50 or serving time in jail. He had only $44 in cash, however. The judge took the available money and suspended the remainder. The police escorted Woodard back to his cell where they attempted first aid with a hot towel and eye drops from a local pharmacy. His condition did not improve, and at some point a local physician examined him. Later during the same day, apparently on the advice of the doctor, the police drove him to the veterans’ hospital in Columbia. Woodard underwent treatment there for two months. He emerged completely sightless in April.
What would he do for the rest of his life? How would he earn a living? The young veteran had only five years of formal schooling, and his civilian and military work experience was limited to manual labor jobs requiring vision. Woodard’s wife apparently saw little hope or future in the situation. She obtained a legal separation from him in May. By this time, however, Woodard had already moved to the Bronx section of New York City where his parents now lived. In late April, he sought assistance from the local branch of the NAACP.
The national organization, which was headquartered in the same city, quickly became involved. On 6 May, NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White sent a letter to Secretary of War Robert Patterson along with a copy of an affidavit Woodard had made. Patterson responded a month later that the Army could not take legal action against Shull because Woodard was technically a civilian at the time of the incident. He did suggest that Woodard apply for a pension through the Veterans Administration. Patterson also sent a copy of the letter and affidavit to the governor of South Carolina, Ransome J. Williams.
In addition to writing the War Department, White also tried to obtain additional information about what had happened. He contacted James Hinton in Columbia with a request to look into the matter. Hinton in turn called John McCray, who began investigating. The task was not an easy one. Woodard initially thought he had been blinded in the town of Aiken rather than Batesburg.
Meanwhile, the story began to attract the attention of various newspapers, including ones in London, England, and Calcutta, India. Whether or not this interest came about as a result of a public relations effort by the NAACP to pressure the War Department and the Veterans Administration is unknown. John McCray said he broke the story in the Lighthouse & Informer, but the pertinent issues of the paper are no longer extant.14 The Daily Worker, official organ of the American Communist Party, claimed to have been first to report the case in its 13 July issue. However the story emerged, it became a major focus for various New York City newspapers and local radio stations by the middle of the month.
The news spread even further at the end of July when, at the behest of Walter White, Orson Welles began broadcasting the first of several programs about Woodard on his American Broadcasting Company radio news show. Welles pulled no punches in his criticism of police in Aiken. Municipal leaders from the town were surprised and offended to find themselves the target of such accusations. They promptly banned films by Welles from Aiken theaters and threatened to sue ABC. Newspapers in South Carolina and Georgia began reporting the Woodard story as did the New York Times.
The misidentification of Aiken did have the benefit of bringing to fore an eyewitness, a veteran named Lincoln Miller, who confirmed that Woodard had been taken off the bus at Batesburg. Once identified as the lawman in question, Chief Shull had no qualms about describing his role. "I hit him across the front of the head," he told a reporter for the Associated Press. "He attempted to take away my blackjack. I grabbed it away from him and cracked him across the head."15
Sympathy and support for Woodard spread. The Veterans Administration granted him a monthly pension of $50.00. Forty national organizations met in New York City on August 8 to discuss courses of action to stop the violence against black veterans. The National NAACP encouraged state conferences and local branches to send telegrams to President Truman, Secretary of War Patterson, and Army Chief of Staff General Omar Bradley.
A group of prominent politicians, entertainers, and athletes arranged a benefit performance for Woodard. The celebrities included the mayor of New York City, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, and actor Paul Robeson. Folk singer Woody Guthrie composed a new song for the occasion, The Blinding of Isaac Woodard, and performed it for the 20,000 people who attended the show on 18 August.
So great was the national outcry that back in South Carolina the Columbia Record encouraged Governor Williams to investigate the treatment of Woodard with the same vigor the state had shown when the false charges had been leveled at Aiken. "Permanent blindness is a terrible price to pay for being drunk," its editor wrote on 22 August.16 The state declined to act.
In September, the NAACP began making plans for Woodard to speak before audiences across the country. The national tour would raise money for a trust fund and increase awareness of the dangers facing black veterans. The Batesburg incident was one of many to occur in 1946. During late February, armed African Americans in Columbia, Tennessee, fought off a lynch mob of whites who wanted to kill a former Navy sailor. On 14 July, a group of whites in Monroe, Georgia, shot to death Army veteran George Dorsey, his wife, his brother-in-law, and his sister. On 8 August in Minden, Louisiana, former soldier John C. Jones was released by the police into the hands of men who tortured him to death slowly with a blow torch and meat cleaver.17 News of these atrocities circled the globe to such places as France and the Soviet Union.18 The revelations were a source of tremendous embarrassment to the United States, which at the time was involved with prosecuting prominent Nazis at Nuremberg for war crimes.
Not by mere coincidence, September marked the beginning of greater involvement in these cases by the federal government. Part of the impetus came from the upcoming congressional elections that November, but part came from the very genuine outrage of President Truman. On 20 September, after a meeting the day prior with Walter White, the president wrote a letter to his Attorney General Tom Clark: "I had as callers yesterday some members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and they told me about an incident which happened in South Carolina where a negro [sic] Sergeant who had been discharged from the Army just three hours, was taken off the bus and not only seriously beaten but his eyes deliberately put out." Truman asked Clark what could be done.19
Clark assigned the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the case. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself sent a letter to Walter White, and agents took a statement from Woodard. They also interviewed Chief Shull and Officer Long. On 26 September, Attorney General Clark announced that the federal government would prosecute Shull for violating Woodard’s rights under the Constitution, among others, "not to be beaten and tortured by persons exercising the authority to arrest" and "not to be subjected to different punishments, pains, and penalties by reason of his race or color."20
United States Attorney Claud N. Sapp filed the charges at the federal court in Columbia, which had jurisdiction over the Batesburg area. The judge who normally would have presided over the trial, George Bell Timmerman, Sr., was a local native and knew Shull personally, so the case went to J. Waties Waring.
Although Shull’s trial was on the calendar for 5 November, the Justice Department took little action during October to prepare. According to Franklin H. Williams—Woodard’s lawyer from the NAACP—neither Sapp nor the other prosecuting attorney "seemed to be familiar with the detailed facts of the case."21 Indeed, Sapp requested a continuance a few days before the trial was to begin. Judge Waring suspected the case against Shull was part of a ploy to win black votes and that the Truman administration would drop the charges if the trial were delayed beyond election day.
Waring refused to play this game even though he had long been a Democrat. He gave the attorney general a choice of either dropping the charges immediately or letting the trial take place according to schedule. "I do not believe that this poor blinded creature should be a football in the contest between box office and ballot box," he wrote at the time.22
The trial began as scheduled. Woodard was the chief witness for the prosecution. After he told his story, two doctors from the veterans’ hospital and one from Batesburg testified. They described the injuries to their former patient’s eyes. The latter—Dr. W. W. King—undermined the case against Shull by testifying that a single blow could indeed have caused the blindness. His presence also contradicted Woodard’s statement under cross-examination that a physician had not treated him in Batesburg. The prosecution rested its case without calling the other witnesses who had claimed Woodard was sober or who had seen Shull strike the soldier at the bus stop. The lawyers planned to use these testimonies during the rebuttal phase of the trial.
Although the first defense witness to testify was the driver, who gave an unflattering description of Woodard’s behavior, Shull’s lawyers made the soldier’s actions on the streets of Batesburg the of crux their argument. According to them, Woodard’s vulgarity and refusal to obey Shull’s instructions to be quiet at the depot provided sufficient grounds for arrest. Moreover, his attempts to take away the blackjack justified the level of force used. Shull admitted under oath that he had used the weapon and that "I could even have stuck my fingers in his eyes."23 He expressed regret that Woodard had lost his sight.
Officer Long weakened the case somewhat by contradicting an earlier statement he had given to the FBI. Subsequently, two witnesses from the Batesburg courtroom, including the judge who had presided, provided damning evidence. Woodard had pled guilty to being drunk and disorderly. The defense concluded by calling three character witnesses, one of whom was a black preacher from Batesburg.
The prosecution’s rebuttal witnesses did little to help Woodard. They had been sitting on the bus, and the defense lawyers had made Woodard’s behavior on the street the central issue. Clearly, the U.S. attorneys presented a weak case. Sapp had even managed to mispronounce Woodard’s name in his opening statement to the jury, and he ended his closing argument by telling the jury he was just doing his job by presenting the case.
Although the defense attorneys built a persuasive argument that Shull had not violated Woodard’s constitutional rights, they were not content to rest on reason or the evidence. They laced their closing statement with raw appeals to racism. Woodard was a member of the "inferior race." Worse, he lived in New York. "That’s not the talk of a sober nigger from South Carolina," one of the lawyers said. If the all-white jury convicted Shull, they warned, the police would no longer be able to protect wives and children. If siding against the federal government prosecutors meant the state should secede from the Union as it did in 1860, then it should do so again.24
The jury took twenty-five minutes to deliver a verdict of "not guilty" to the cheers of spectators. The twelve would have returned sooner, but Judge Waring, sensing the outcome, decided to take a twenty-minute walk.25 Woodard wept with what remained of his eyes.
The case remained in the public eye for another year. The National Negro Congress included Shull’s acquittal in the body of documentary evidence of American racial injustices it presented in a petition to the United Nations. A woman from California offered to donate one of her eyes. A convict facing execution in New York tried to give both of his. The NAACP sponsored a national tour to raise money for the blinded veteran. Woodard made speeches from October to December at eighteen mass meetings held at locations across the country. Approximately 17,000 attended the rallies, and they donated $12,248.03. The NAACP used the money to establish a trust fund, which provided a monthly salary of $29.40 for Woodard to go with the $50 he received from the Veterans Administration.
The NAACP also helped him to file a $50,000 civil lawsuit against the Atlantic Greyhound Corporation of West Virginia, which owned and operated the bus on which the incident began.26 The trial was held in that state from 10 to 13 November 1947. Most of the principal witnesses testified, including Woodard, Shull, and Blackwell. The defendants went so far as to subpoena testimony from the white woman who allegedly had been offended by the noise and vulgarity. She and her husband, an Army officer, had since moved to the Philippines. Both sides made arrangements with lawyers overseas to obtain her deposition.
The jury consisted of eleven whites and one black. They deliberated for over five hours before returning a verdict in favor of the bus company. This trial marked the end of the NAACP’s ability to help.
Woodard now faced a lifetime of blindness. He considered using the money that had been donated to go into the restaurant business or open a newsstand. In March 1947, he went to the Avon School for the Blind in Connecticut where he learned basic survival skills like reading Braille. He disappeared into obscurity from there. According to the Social Security Death Index, he passed away on 23 September 1992 in New York City after having lived forty-six years in darkness. The event received little or no publicity. His case nevertheless reverberated long after he faded from public consciousness, most notably in the subsequent careers of J. Waties Waring and Harry Truman and their effects on South Carolina politics, desegregation of the armed forces, the presidential election of 1948, and the Brown decision.
The president had no great regard for black soldiers. As an artillery captain during the First World War, he had fought alongside the Ninety Second Infantry Division in France. He had not been impressed by the performance of the African-American troops who comprised that organization. Truman retained the prejudices of a rural Missouri upbringing and was known on occasion to make disparaging remarks about African Americans. The mistreatment of veterans such as Woodard, however, violated the brotherhood forged by combat as well as his sense of fairness. Moreover, various civil rights groups wanted his administration to do something about the violence.
Truman summed up his feelings in a personal letter he wrote to a fellow World War I veteran in 1948. He said: "When a Mayor and a City Marshal can take a negro Sergeant off a bus in South Carolina, beat him up and put out one of his eyes, and nothing is done about it by the State Authorities, something is radically wrong with the system."27
In December 1946, Truman appointed a Presidential Commission on Civil Rights to investigate. The group submitted its findings the next year in a famous report called To Secure These Rights. Its recommendation that segregation end in the armed forces became the foundation for Executive Order 9981. Ironically, one of the first Army posts to desegregate under the order would be Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
The findings of the Commission on Civil Rights also echoed through this state during the election of 1948. Opposition to the president’s positions on civil rights, among other policies, spurred a third-party movement led by South Carolina Governor J. Strom Thurmond. The future U.S. senator won electoral votes in four states and would later lead the state into the Republican fold.
Judge J. Waties Waring had a comparable effect on state politics that can be traced to the Woodard case. Waring was an equally unlikely crusader for racial equality. A native of Charleston, South Carolina, the judge had an ancestry that stretched back to the seventeenth century in a city where such distinctions mattered greatly. He had attended the College of Charleston, married a woman of equally prestigious lineage, established a successful law practice, and become firmly ensconced in the local elite. He retained most of the prejudices about blacks that came with membership in that aristocracy at that time. Only his 1944 divorce and hasty remarriage indicated any willingness to break with this past.
The Woodard case shook Waring, however. The judge’s new wife Elizabeth sat in the courtroom, too, and wept at the verdict. Together, they began trying to learn more about the southern race situation. Their search included reading of two now-classic works—Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 An American Dilemma and Wilbur J. Cash’s 1941 Mind of the South. They had plenty of time to study. Waring’s divorce from his first wife had caused much scandal among Charleston bluebloods. Regardless of whether the Warings were ostracized or whether they withdrew of their own accord, the newlyweds no longer participated in society functions.
The federal judge would have a powerful effect upon the course of South Carolina history when he presided over the Elmore v. Rice lawsuit filed by African Americans who wanted to participate in the all-white Democratic state primary. His eyes opened to racial inequities, he decided in favor of the plaintiff. "It is time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union," he said in his July 1947 ruling.28
Federal Judge George Bell Timmerman, Sr., stayed the ruling until white Democrats could appeal. In December 1947, the Fourth Circuit Court upheld Judge Waring, and five months later, the Supreme Court declined to review the case.
The Democrats nevertheless refused to concede. In May 1948, the state organization changed the rules for registering. Blacks could vote, but only if they swore an oath to uphold segregation. The state NAACP sued to end this requirement in Brown v. Baskin. Judge Waring presided, and he agreed that the Democrats had gone too far. He overturned the oath requirement, calling it a "flagrant disregard of the rights of American citizens to exercise their own views and opinions."29
South Carolina whites had no more legal methods to prevent blacks from voting, and this reality enraged them. Moreover, Judge Waring was neither an uppity Negro nor a Yankee outsider. The thought that one of their own had committed this betrayal shook them to the core. On the floor of the House of Representatives, William Jennings Bryan Dorn of Columbia called for Congress to impeach Waring. He said that the judge had "opened the primary of South Carolina to anyone who wants to vote—Communists or anyone else, and the action is viewed as unconstitutional, undemocratic, and un-American." Representative L. Mendel Rivers of Charleston introduced a resolution to impeach Waring on the basis of a conflict of interest the judge may have had during an earlier Virginia bank trial.30
In the U.S. Senate, Burnet Maybank termed the Brown v. Baskin decision as "deplorable" while Olin Johnston accused the judge of being incapable of rendering an unbiased ruling in cases concerning South Carolina. Waring would eventually require armed sentries to stand guard outside of his Charleston home.31
The federal judge’s upending of South Carolina tradition had only begun. In 1948, a group of parents in Clarendon County petitioned for their district to provide buses for black children. Although African Americans made up seventy-five percent of this county’s population, only the white students had public transportation. County officials ignored the parents’ request. With the help of Thurgood Marshall and James Hinton of the NAACP, the parents sued not only for equal buses, but for completely equal facilities. Judge Waring rejected the plea for equality. He advised the parents and the NAACP to refile and argue directly against the idea of segregation.
The Clarendon lawsuit, called Briggs v. Elliot, was filed in December 1950. The case went before a special panel of three federal judges, who decided against the plaintiffs in 1951 by a vote of 2-1. Judge Waring cast the opposing vote. In his dissent, he became the first federal jurist to argue explicitly against the "separate but equal" doctrine set forth in Plessy v. Ferguson. The appeal went before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Clarendon lawsuit became one of the five cases subsumed under Brown v. Board of Education.
Truly, the blinding of Isaac Woodard had long-term ramifications that shaped the United States and the world in unintentional ways. Why in this case did the local resonate so clearly with the state, national, and global? Why did it attract so much attention when numerous other black veterans who were mistreated—even killed or maimed more gruesomely—went unnoticed?
Woodard’s decision to move to the Bronx rather than stay in Winnsboro made a tremendous difference. New York provided a large base of supporters, both black and white. The area was home to the national NAACP and other civil rights organizations. It had The New York Times and headquarters for the major radio networks.
Timing played a major role as well. Although Woodard suffered his injuries in February, word of the story did not begin to spread until July, when news broke during the following month about the horrendous murders of veterans in Georgia and Louisiana.
Woodard also survived his encounter. Unlike George Dorsey and John Jones, he could go on national tour and make speeches. This ability was especially significant in an era where radio, not television, ruled the airwaves. For the 20,000 people who attended the benefit in New York City and the 17,000 who saw the veteran at mass meetings during the fall of 1946, Woodard put a face on a nation’s shame.
Indeed, the shabby treatment accorded many returning black veterans became a source of international embarrassment for the United States. The incidents made Americans—who championed individual liberty and condemned Nazis for racism—look like hypocrites in the eyes of the world and gave the Soviet Union a propaganda victory in the growing Cold War.
That Woodard’s blinding took place during an election year helped, too. President Truman felt pressure to act, and various civil rights organizations like the NAACP used the outrage to mobilize voters. These efforts did not bear immediate fruit, but they set the stage for the elections of 1948.
Harry Truman was definitely a political creature, but to argue that he acted solely for electoral gain would be sell him short as a person and miss what ultimately connects the local to the global—individual human beings. Both Truman and Waring were moved by the Woodard case at a personal level. The tragedy compelled them to reconsider their own beliefs about race. Such experiences fortified what author Michael Gardner describes in his 2002 book about Truman as "moral courage," the will to do the right thing despite internal prejudices and regardless of the risk to one’s reputation or position.32 Moral courage would become increasingly important in an age of global bureaucratic systems that required less the physicality of epic heroes and more the internal bravery of otherwise ordinary people.1I. A. Newby, Black Carolinians: A History of Blacks in South Carolina from 1895 to 1968 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973), p 281.
2Newby, Black Carolinians, p. 237.
3The State, November 1944.
4Unless otherwise cited, information regarding racial incidents at Fort Jackson, in Columbia, and across the Carolinas comes from declassified weekly Domestic Intelligence Reports produced by the Fourth Army Service Command. They are filed in chronological order at the National Archives and Records Administration (College Park, Maryland), Record Group 319.
5Memorandum 1-2-46, General File, Fort Jackson, Truman Papers.
6Pittsburgh Courier, 24 August 1945. No complete collection of the Lighthouse & Informer exists because McCray sold the paper's morgue for scrap when it went out of business in the 1950s. The South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina has scattered issues, clippings from McCray's personal scrapbooks, and microfilmed copies of original issues preserved in Belgium. Intelligence agents from the Fourth Army Service Command read the Lighthouse & Informer regularly and often quoted large excerpts in their domestic intelligence reports.
7McCray mentions this incident in "The Isaac Woodard Story," John McCray Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.
8Manuscript census of Fairfield County for the years 1900, 1910, and 1920. The author has not obtained data for 1930, which was released for public perusal in April 2002.
9Personal information about Woodard comes from the following documents "Separation Qualification Record" (Reel 29, Frames 231-232), "Enlisted Record and Report of Separation Honorable Discharge" (Reel 29, Frame 178) and Isaac Woodard testimony (Reel 30, Frames 121-133).
10Alton Blackwell testimony, 1947, NAACP Papers (Reel 30, Frame 240)
11Alton Blackwell testimony, 1947, NAACP Papers (Reel 30, Frame 246). Blackwell's 1947 testimony varied slightly from statements attributed to him in 1946. He apparently threatened to leave Woodard behind. His use of "boy" to address Woodard stayed consistent.
12Isaac Woodard testimony, 1947, NAACP Papers (Reel 30, Frame 125). Also quoted in Lighthouse & Informer clipping, 6 February 1946, McCray Papers.
13Isaac Woodard testimony, 1947, NAACP Papers (Reel 30, Frame 127).
14"The Isaac Woodard Story," McCray Papers.
15New York Times, 18 August 1946.
16Columbia Record, 22 August 1946.
17John Egerton, Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), pp. 366-370.
18Le Monde, 31 July 1946; Captain D. Mochalin, "In the Armed Forces of the Bourgeois Nations: The Status of the Negro in the United States Army," Declassified, translated U.S. intercept of Soviet Army document, 1949, Combined Arms Research Library, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
19Michael R. Gardner, Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), pp. 16-17.
20Gardner, Harry Truman and Civil Rights, pp. 17-18.
21Memorandum to Thurgood Marshall from Franklin H. Williams, NAACP Papers (Reel 29, Frame 1001).
22Yarbrough, A Passion for Justice, p. 50.
23Lighthouse & Informer clipping, 6 February 1946, McCray Papers.
24Memorandum to Thurgood Marshall from Franklin H. Williams, NAACP Papers (Reel 29, Frame 1006).
25Yarbrough, A Passion for Justice, pp. 52.
26Reel 30, NAACP Papers, contains a complete transcript of the 1947 civil suit.
27Letter from Harry Truman to Ernest W. Roberts, 18 August 1948, quoted in Robert H. Ferrell, ed., Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), pp. 146-147.
28Yarbrough, A Passion for Justice, p. 64.
29Howard H. Quint, Profile in Black and White: A Frank Portrait of South Carolina> (Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1958), p. 6.
30Domestic Intelligence Report, 30 July 1948, 4 August 1948, NARA.
31Domestic Intelligence Report, 30 July 1948, 15 December 1950, NARA.
32Gardner, Harry Truman and Civil Rights, p. xvi.